Volunteers’ Stories: Alison

Alison’s Story

“It may sound clichéd but a volunteer experience in Malawi will change you. The extent of the change will depend on what you want to take away from it. The memories will last forever – not only in your life, but in those of the people you help while you are there. I could not recommend the experience more.”

Every time I have shown my photographs to family and friends, or tied to recount a story, and even as I sit and write this now, I find that I struggle to find the words that would adequately describe the experience that is Malawi.

No matter how hard I try, I have not yet been able to fully explain what it is like to travel in a minibus, nor how it feels to put your life in the hands of a friendly matola driver. I cannot describe the acute need of the local people, nor their incredibly happy, friendly dispositions that shine through despite the poverty that surrounds them.

As for the children… how does one explain what it is like to stand in the school ‘playground’ (think dirt patch) and have a child clinging to each finger? Or to walk down any stretch of road to be greeted a zillion times by a zillion voices – many unseen in fields or up trees? Or to see a child (3 years old) running around playing soccer one day, and then barely able to move from malaria the next?

It is impossible to convey the heartbreak and sadness that is felt as you come to realise the effects of the lack of basic needs. Television and other media bombard us with images and reports all the time showing people dying for want of what we in the West would class as the most basic of necessities, water, food, health care. There is nothing that can prepare you to see it with your own eyes.

  • Alison teaching at Mwaya Primary School
    Alison teaching at Mwaya Primary School
  • Alison has a passion for Africa and is now working for another charity
    Alison has a passion for Africa and is now working for another charity

Frustration is all around. Why does it take all day to travel a couple of hundred kms? Why do pineapples cost 10 kwacha today and 25 tomorrow? Why can’t the clinic have another doctor? Why aren’t there enough text books in class?

In the early days, you may begin to wonder just how much you are really going to achieve, how you can possibly do anything to help in the long run. Then, you will begin to narrow your vision, rather than just seeing the ‘bigger’ picture. You will realise just how much you can do, you are doing. We are so used to seeing everything on a wide, global scale that we forget how much the small things can make a difference.

There are no words to describe a Malawian sunset or sunrise over the lake, no photo can do it justice. Nor is it possible to imagine what a thunderstorm sounds like directly over your chalet in the middle of the night during the wet season (or the relief it can bring after a humid day).

Life is simple. No electricity? – all the better to see the stars and appreciate the full moon. Limited diet? – everything is as fresh and natural as you can get – no preservatives here! Difficult to access email/mobile phones etc? – wonderful! relearn the art of letter writing and remember how receiving a letter in return can make your day. Yes, life is simple and you will be amazed at the pleasure you can take in the simple things.

As for friendships, it is difficult to explain how an experience such as this can form such strong bonds in such a short period of time. When I went to Glasgow to see Tracy, Emilia and Pauline and as I board my plane tonight to go and see Ben, I am so excited – not only to be seeing them again, but to know that I don’t need to rely on words, they know what it was like to be there and they understand without the need for explanation.

It may sound clichéd but a volunteer experience in Malawi will change you. The extent of the change will depend on what you want to take away from it. The memories will last forever – not only in your life, but in those of the people you help while you are there. I could not recommend the experience more.

Alison (Volunteer Teaching Assistant, January-February 2006)

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